The MGM Cartoon Studio in the Golden Age of American Animation
The Early Years - The Captain and the Kids:
In March 1937, MGM hired film sales executive Fred Quimby, a man with no previous experience in the animation industry, to set up and run the new MGM cartoon department. Among the holdovers from the Harman-Ising regime, William Hanna and Bob Allen were appointed as directors, and Carmen Maxwell became production manager. Quimby raided every major American animation studio for talent, extracting artists, directors, and writers from studios, such as Friz Freleng from Leon Schlesinger Productions, Emery Hawkins from Screen Gems, and much of the top staff at Terrytoons (Joseph Barbera, Jack Zander, Ray Kelly, Dan Gordon, George Gordon, and others). After spending some time headquartered in a nearby house, the new MGM cartoon studio at Overland Ave. and Montana Ave. opened its doors on August 23, 1937.
Although it boasted a brand-new facility and large production budgets, the MGM cartoon studio's first series was a failure. The Captain and the Kids, adapted from Rudolph Dirks' Katzenjammer Kids characters, was licensed by MGM without input from its then-forming creative staff. Freleng, Hanna, and Allen, assigned to direct the Captain and the Kids cartoons, were unable to translate the Katzenjammer humor into animation, and the series folded after fifteen episodes. Only two of the Captain and the Kids shorts were produced in Technicolor; the other thirteen were produced in black-and-white and released in sepia-toned prints.
The Return of Harman and Ising:
|MGM brought in established newspaper cartoonists such as Milt Gross and Harry Hershfield in an attempt to both bolster the Captain and the Kids product and create original properties for MGM, but both cartoonists' tenures at the studio were short-lived. Gross managed to complete two cartoons, Jitterbug Follies and Wanted: No Master, with his characters Count Screwloose of Tooloose and J.R. the Wonder Dog, while Hershfield completed no cartoons. In October 1938, Quimby, coming full-circle, hired Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising as the new creative heads of the studio, acting as both directors and producers, and in charge of many of the employees who had defected from the Harman-Ising studio a year before.
Among Ising's first new cartoons for MGM was 1939's The Bear Who Couldn't Sleep, the debut appearance of Barney Bear, a lumbering anthropomorphic bear based upon both Wallace Beery and Ising himself.
Barney Bear would become MGM's first original cartoon star, regularly featured in cartoons until 1953, although his popularity never rose to the level of a Mickey Mouse or a Porky Pig. Ising focused on the Barney Bear cartoons, while Harman focused on making intricately animated one-shot cartoons, although Harman was able to establish a short-lived series of Three Bears cartoons.
At this time, Harman created his masterwork, Peace on Earth. Released during the holiday season of 1939 (immediately after the outbreak of World War II in Europe), Peace on Earth was a serious work which dealt with the idea of what a post-apocalyptic world would be like. Peace on Earth was nominated for the 1939 Academy Award for Short Subjects (Cartoons), as well as for the Nobel Peace Prize.
William Hanna and Joseph Barbera - The Beginning of Tom and Jerry
Friz Freleng, briefly assigned to work under Harman, returned to Schlesinger after his MGM contract expired in April 1939, and storyman Joseph Barbera was teamed with director William Hanna to co-direct cartoons for Rudolf Ising's unit. The duo's first cartoon together was 1940's Puss Gets the Boot, featuring a mouse's attempts to outwit a housecat. Though released without fanfare, the short was financially and critically successful, earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Short Subject (Cartoons) of 1940. On the strength of the Oscar nomination and public demand, Hanna and Barbera were assigned to direct more cat-and-mouse cartoons, eventually christening the characters "Tom" and "Jerry". Puss Gets the Boot did not win the 1940 Academy Award for Best Cartoon, but another MGM cartoon, Rudolf Ising's The Milky Way did, making MGM the first studio to wrestle the Cartoon Academy Award away from Walt Disney.
Tom and Jerry quickly became MGM's most valuable animated property. The shorts were successful at the box office, many licensed products (comic books, toys, etc.) were released to the market, and the series would earn twelve more Academy Award for Short Subjects (Cartoons) nominations, with seven of the Tom and Jerry shorts going on to win the Academy Award: The Yankee Doodle Mouse (1943), Mouse Trouble (1944), Quiet Please! (1945), The Cat Concerto (1946), The Little Orphan (1948), The Two Mouseketeers (1951), and Johann Mouse (1952). Tom and Jerry was eventually tied with Disney's Silly Symphonies as the most-awarded theatrical cartoon series. Originally barred by Quimby from making a second cat-and-mouse short until the the overwhelming success of Puss Gets the Boot demanded it, Hanna and Barbera and their team of animators, who included Jack Zander, Kenneth Muse, Irven Spence, Ed Barge, Ray Patterson and Pete Burness, worked on nothing but Tom and Jerry cartoons from 1941 until 1955.
Key to the successes of Tom and Jerry and other MGM cartoons was the work of Scott Bradley, who scored virtually all of the cartoons for the studio from 1934 to 1957. Bradley's scores made use of both classical and jazz sensibilities. In addition, he often used songs from the scores of MGM's feature films, the most frequent of them being "The Trolley Song" from Meet Me in St. Louis and "Sing Before Breakfast" from Broadway Melody of 1936. (cont......)
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